Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Choreographing fight scenes

Neil wrote in last week with this question:

I write a lot of action scripts (yet to have anything professionally read) which means a lot of action - gun fights, fights, chases etc. But how much is too much? I have a very clear image of how a fight will go for example, so I'll describe most of the punches and how close the bullets are. Should I be avoiding this> Is it not my job? Should I be somewhere between this and "they fight". Say HOW they fight (style and who is superior) and show the outcome?

Good question. As a writer, I tend to favor erroring on the side of caution and not giving a blow-by-blow description of the fight. In general, a lot of that work is probably left to the fight choreographer. Speaking as a reader who has suffered through more than a few over-written fight scenes, I can say that it does impact the read. First, I’d say follow the tips I gave yesterday. You can probably get away with describing a few extra actions so long as those actions are broken up in a way that they still flow.

Having said that, take a look at this example from Revenge of the Sith:

And now look at how the first few scenes in that clip are described in the script: (

ANAKIN: If you're not with me, you're my enemy.

OBI-WAN: Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes. I will do what I must. (ignites his lightsaber)

ANAKIN: You will try.

ANAKIN ignites his lightsaber. ANAKIN lashes out at OBI-WAN, and they begin a ferocious sword fight. ANAKIN throws CONTAINERS at OBI-WAN using the Force.

They work their way off the landing platform and into the main entry hallway. ANAKIN kicks OBI-WAN, and OBI-WAN drops to a lower level.

ARTOO BEEPS his concern and rushes to the unconscious PADME's aid.


ANAKIN and OBI-WAN move their fight toward the main control center. As the laser swords fly, bits of the hallway are cut up. OBI-WAN and ANAKIN jump and use every trick in the Jedi book.


View screens EXPLODE around ANAKIN and OBI-WAN as they work their way into the Control Room. The fighting is intense.

OBI-WAN is on the defensive as he jumps up on the table view screen in the center of the room.

It’s worth noting that if you compare the script to the film as produced, there are more than a few differences. Still, notice how sparse Lucas’ descriptions are? Especially compared to all the parries, thrusts, and flips seen on-screen?

With so many great scripts online at the Internet Movie Script Database, it’s worth checking out famous fight scenes and seeing how under-choreographed they are. Just take a look at Rocky ( and see how the final fight gives a sense of how many blows are thrown, without specifically choreographing each hit.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t go overboard in the description. If there’s a particular punch or gun shot that’s important, then certainly call it out in the script. If your script is starting to read like a ringside play-by-play, then you might want to rethink things.

Having said that, everybody has their own way of doing these things. Just make sure it’s easy to read. You can get away with a lot so long as it’s easy to read. In my experience “easy to read” usually translates to less description.


  1. Excellent post. Thanks a lot for answering the question. I know I overwrite fight scenes because I know a lot about them. But I'll have to make myself calm it down. Thanks :)

  2. The magic words are "To be staged by director". Even if you don't actually use that phrase, give the director and stunt coordinator a little credit for figuring out what works, looks good, etc. And how many writers out there have actually been in a real fight?

  3. Kate, I'm not sure I agree with you about using the phrase -- or any similar phrase -- "To be staged by the director." It's obvious that the script will be staged by the director, and writing it out just adds words to the script. It may sound harsh, but when you have a heap of scripts to get through and coverages to write, anything extra in the script becomes magnified. Paring down a fight scene to just the specific images we need to get from Point A to Point B is enough -- the director knows s/he can and should embellish the action with his or her own staging.

  4. Ahhh! Thank you so much! I was wondering about this. I'm young, and plan to write one of my first scripts! Thank you tons!